Festivals are strange and wonderful environments. Being in a state of extreme film-watching (wherein your entire day is taken up by either sitting in a darkened room, thinking about what you just saw, or else trying to figure out what you’re going to see next) puts certain aspects of cinema into perspective. Watching films as diverse as Romain Garvas’s wild and angry road film Our Day Will Come, Andrei Zvyagintsev’s quiet and frosty Elena, and Sam Fuller’s zoom-happy Pickup on South Street makes one excited about all the different stylish possibilities of narrative storytelling. But a sort of paradox occurs: While growing large, cinema also shrinks. There are stirs of echoes between different time periods and filmmakers. Hong Sang-soo finds just as much utility in zooming on people’s faces in The Day He Arrives as Fuller does. Cinema has undergone many transformations, but it must go further still, always searching for new forms, rhythms, words (like Film Socialisme’s brazen use of Navajo English subtitles to explore the limitations of language) and modes of expression. We’ve had many waves, but from the shore (for we’ve only just begun to swim) the expanse of the ocean is endless.
At a festival as large and expansive as the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, you’re free to exercise your own curatorial decisions and carve out a customized mini-festival from within the offerings. And unless you’re expressly viewing films playing within the competitive categories, it’s easy to wind up not having seen any of the award-winning films. And with the exception of one film (Pascal Rabaté’s Holidays By the Sea, which took the directing prize), that’s the case here. Thus, I can only vageuly speculate as to their merits, and report the other four main prize winners: Joseph Madmony’s Restoration received the Grand Prix, the Special Jury Prize was given to Martin Šulík’s Gypsy, David Morse got Best Actor for his work in Collaborator, and Best Actress went to Stine Fischer Christensen for Cracks in the Shell. A full list of the winners can be found here.
The Dardenne brothers’ The Kid with the Bike and Hong’s The Day He Arrives are fine films made by masters. Yet they’re the works of filmmakers operating from within well-carved comfort zones. You’d have to be blind to suggest that either the Dardennes or Hong have made the same film over and over, because one can trace clear thematic and stylistic developments, shifting preoccupations within their oeuvres. But, and maybe this is a sometime problem of auteurism, when filmmakers give full reign to their formal/narrative obsessions, a certain consistency leads to comfortable safety. I’d love to see the Dardennes try a genre film. Maybe horror? (Arguably their films already have some of that genre’s tendencies.) And maybe Hong’s recently announced project with Isabelle Huppert will nudge him out of his current orbit, just a little, as it’s always thrilling when a filmmaker throws a curveball.
That said, The Day He Arrives was one of my favorite films of the festival. Shot in black and white (though the blacks are really deep grays) in quietly snowy Seoul, the film features, of course, intellectuals (all having careers related to film) getting properly soused and lightly prodding at each other’s wounds. It’s about how people willfully refuse to learn from their mistakes. You can’t cross the same bridge twice. But, Sungjoon (Yu Jun-Sang) is fervently willing to do just that, proposing a philosophy of how there’s no higher meaning to be gleaned from coincidences. And in this film coincidences repeat themselves. Sungjoon leaves the house of an ex-girlfriend only to later that night step into a bar and start a flirtation with a girl who’s a dead ringer for his ex (both are played by the same actress). Yet he gives both girls the same final kiss-off speech. He runs into the same actress multiple times on the street, going to the same bar with firends night after night. All these repeated encounters are a little different from the last, but to no great effect. Lives and behavioral patterns stay the same, after all. This is purgatory.
Karlovy Vary doesn’t just celebrate the history of cinema with its numerous retrospective and archival sidebars, but cherishes its own countries cinematic past by always offering a couple of Czech films. Zdenek Podskalský’s fleetly paced Men About Town, released in 1969, is a delightful take on country mice wanting to be city mice. With a Marx brothers-like physicality to their performances, Tonda (Jirí Sovák), Gustav (Vlastimil Brodský), and Petrtýl (Jan Libícek) work as plasterers that come to Prague for a job, taking the opportunity to pretend to be wealthy intellectuals. The only problem is that they’re neither rich nor intellectual nor well-mannered. And all of their endeavors, from each picking a specialty (UFOs, absurdist theater, and Salvador Dalí) to lessons in table manners, go comically awry. They’re set up with three likewise working-class women who believe the men to be rich and plan to fleece, trying to pass themselves off as refined ladies (each also selecting an intellectual topic of interest). The dinner conversation, wherein they all hold court on their designated focus, leads to some of the most ridiculous observations on art and science ever verbalized. The country mice end up learning the lesson of many before them: There’s no place like home.
I’ve been ruminating a lot about François Truffaut lately, and these couple sentences out of his preface to The Films in My Life seem an appropriate closing: “I think of my friend, Professor Jean Domarchi. He has watched 350 films a year passionately for the past 30 years and every time I meet him he says, ’Tell me, old friend, it’s nice to have something to see, isn’t it?’”
The Karlovy Vary International Film Festival ran from July 1 – 9. For more information, click here.